By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
There’s something about Fort Gibson Lady Tiger basketball that I just can’t lock into yet.
You’ve heard people talk about the NBA in that way, as in call me when the playoffs start? Well, it’s kind of like that here. Don’t call me about Fort Gibson until state. Or, well, OK, area. Jerry Walker’s team proved they are vulnerable at that level a year ago, but only temporarily.
Up until then, it’s like LeBron and Co. mowing through that mighty East. Only with Fort Gibson, it’s been that way longer.
Savannah Gray, this year's only senior, is 99-3 with a 14-0 mark this year. Last year’s senior group with two state championships in tow was 109-6. The Lady Tigers have won 10 consecutive Old Fort Classics.
Ranked No. 1 in Class 4A, this year’s gang is on track to get into some rarer air. Sequoyah and Angel Goodrich won three 3A titles in four years, narrowly missing a state record fourth in their final trip. Goodrich and her senior class was 107-7.
“We’re not there yet, so I’m not even going there,” Walker said.
But in a way, they’re already there — and have been for some time.
Sequoyah was down before and after that run. The Lady Indians from 2005-07 had a New York Yankees like run, but then it ended. Since 2005, Fort Gibson has been the Atlanta Braves — always in the postseason discussion. Its worst seasons since 2005 are two quarterfinal appearances. They’ve been to the finals and lost four times, twice losing leads in the final couple minutes. Anadarko spoiled a shot at a three-peat in 2012 by splitting Fort Gibson’s 2011 and 2013 titles.
But the 2012 season brought the team to the level where tradition may be locked into place, Walker said.
“When we got back to defend it, you could sense it,” he said. “Everyone discounted us the year we won it because they were critical of our schedule and how it wasn’t strong enough, and then we got back the next year without a true post player,” he said.
“Then when we won the second one (assistant coach) Chuck London tells me ‘not that our program needed validation, but when you win the second one it validates the first one.”
They knew, and if others didn’t know, they know now. And it’s a good bet they’ll stay familiar with them.
This is a program that isn’t going away.
The schedule is still sometimes called into question, but Walker points out that the stronger conference the Lady Tigers are in shows the quality is there. Locust Grove is a top 10 team and its only losses are to Fort Gibson and 3A powerhouse Adair. Vinita, a team the Lady Tigers have seen often at state and won one title in 2009, is also in that group. Hilldale, it’s archrival, isn’t the Hilldale of old either, having started the year around the top 10.
Still, when the Lady Tigers get to the state, they’re winning, so what does it matter? They come to play.
They will add a home and home with Sequoyah next season, and they’ll also be in the Tournament of Champions (this year’s TOC would have required practice up to Christmas and Walker decided to give his girls a holiday instead). The Lady Tigers might’ve been in the Shrine Classic next year had it not been for the TOC. Walker’s team typically scrimmages Muskogee anyway. A two-hour skirmish at Christmas a year ago might’ve been the best basketball matchup I saw all season.
It’s a shame both aren’t in the Shrine. They’d be a real threat to the Lady Roughers’ dominance at the top of that tourney, not to mention some very interesting basketball.
“The tough thing is, with so many tournaments you have to work up alliances with teams — if you go to theirs, they’ll come to yours — and that’s a factor in jumping away into another one,” Walker said. “I love scrimmaging Muskogee. They’re as athletic as anyone we’ll see at the state tournament and that gives us a good look at where we’re at.
“The thing is we load up on 6A teams in preseason scrimmages too, but as far as result, those are hard to determine. You come away saying you’re right there with them or maybe you won some quarters. They’re so much taller and athletic and it comes down to how you play them defensively.”
Last but not least, it’s the coaching — Walker never hesitates in giving credit to London and his other assistant coach, Denise Gray. London coached a state title at Bristow and between the three, they’ve coached teams in various sports to 13 gold balls.
“The asset there is the knowledge that experience and success brings,” he said. “You might fool me with a defense I haven’t seen but it’s unlikely you’re throwing a defense at us that one of us hasn’t seen.”
And it all flows upstream.
“Just today,” Walker said Sunday, “I walk in the old gym and there were little league teams running out 20 kids with coaches scrimmaging back and forth and I get to my office at the big gym and six of my high school players and (the younger sister of current Lady Tiger Jodi) Glover are in there.”
Just playing and just winning.